Irvine Blog - Posts from Local Experts
In June, Destination Irvine had the opportunity to host eight members of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) for a day and a half FAM Tour.
The itinerary began with lunch at the 6ix Park Grill located at the Hyatt Regency. Executive Chef, Ted Hill served a delicious meal paired with Match Book wines. And no lunch would be complete without a mouthwatering, to-heck-with-the-diet dessert.
Peach cream brulee with a homemade pecan cookie
Photo by Roger Paige
We left the Hyatt and headed to The Wine Artist for a cooking class with owner MJ.
We experienced a "Taste of Thailand" by learning how to make spring rolls, pad Thai, chicken curry and mango sticky rice.
This was my first cooking lesson and I have to say that MJ was very informative; she not only taught us about proper technique, but she explained the Asian ingredients making them less intimidating. The IFWTWA members were extremely complimentary with a few of them saying it was the best cooking class they have ever been a part of!The IFWTWA group along with the owner of The Wine Artist, MJ, and Me. Photo by Linda Kissam
With much regret, we departed from our fun group cooking lesson at The Wine Artist and headed to Pizzeria Ortica for dinner. Yes, for more food - I've often said that gluttony is part of the job description!
The food was over the top! I have been trying to think of my favorite item that was served and I cannot - everything was delicious (seriously) the Milanesa pizza and the papparedelle pasta with lamb were both divine. And I absolutely loved the olives on the antipasti plate.
After Chef Justin served us salad, antipasti, three different kinds of pasta and a variety of four pizzas, and more dessert, we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and headed back to the Hyatt and called it a night.
In the morning we made our way to the Qzina Institute of Chocolate and Pastry where we were greeted with the sweet fragrant scent of chocolate (definitely not a bad thing to smell at 9:30 a.m.)
The charming corporate chef, Francois Mellet, took us through the process of making chocolate from the bean to the bar. We learned how to roast, winnow, grind, refine and conche.
Of course, the presentation concluded with a tasting of six different chocolates from around the world; each offered a distinct flavor.
This was a great group experience with all of us sitting along the counter each with our own pot of boiling water and broth to cook the thinly sliced meat and vegetables. I am a big fan of any food that is served with dipping sauces.
An individual serving at SWSH Shabu Shabu
Photo by Roger Paige
Before we headed back to the hotel so the journalists depart for their homes, the group was able to explore Diamond Jamboree. A few took my advice and ordered the popular sea salt coffee from 85°C Bakery.
By hosting the group of writers from the IFWTWA, Destination Irvine wanted to convey that the city has many unique offerings for visitors and groups to enjoy - many of those offerings being discreetly hidden in what looks to be only office buildings! But, if you look beyond the brick and mortar you will discover hidden gems like The Wine Artist and the Qzina Institute of Chocolate and Pastry.
Food and Wine Bloggers Tour Irvine with Dave Ihrig host of the Irvine Scene - watch the video
So much of my ITRYathlon training experience has been a challenge; stretching myself to run for miles and learning how to swim. My efforts on the track and in the pool may have been a bit of a struggle..
...but my time on the bike has been pure pleasure.
It's the one part of this journey that feels familiar, the one thing I could do right away.
Every time I hop on my bike, I'm instantly transported back in time.
Suddenly it's the summer of 1975 and I'm flying down the hill on Poplar Street. My favorite Chicago song is playing on my AM radio and the wind is fluttering through the plastic rainbow streamers on my handlebars.
Saturday in the Park...I think it was the 4th of July...
Back then, riding my bike meant freedom.
It was a chance to pedal out of the driveway and see the world beyond my street, even if I only made it as far as Hank's Corner for a fresh supply of Pez
Now, when I train on my bike, I feel that same sense of release. For fifty minutes, no one can catch me. I am off the grid and out on the street, flying as fast as my legs can pedal.
Of the three parts of the ITRYathlon, biking is the one that I can easily imagine continuing after race day.
After all, I live in a very bike friendly town.
Irvine has more than 280 miles of on-road bike lanes and 44 miles off-road bike trails. In fact, there are so many trails that it's possible to ride your bike from base of the Santa Ana Mountains all the way to the sea.
Certainly enough trails for me to find new adventures and escape for awhile.
They all said this would be the hardest part. My athlete friends were very clear:
Start running. Ride the bike. But, most importantly,
Get in the pool.
I am not a swimmer. To me, poolside means a comfy chaise lounge and a margarita. Oh sure, I took swimming lessons when I was a kid; bobbing up and down in the frigid water of my suburban Chicago community pool. But I never learned to swim well, with recognizable strokes and side breathing.
I grew up to be more of a "Barbie Swimmer," always keeping my head above water so I wouldn't get my hair wet.
When I began training for the ITRYathlon, I was smart enough to know that I needed swimming lessons.
But I was foolish enough to think that it would be easy.
Like any good mother, I dutifully took my children to swimming lessons when they were little. Our school of choice was the Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, a veritable swimming instruction institution in Orange County since 1956.
When it was time for me to find my own swimming school, I returned to Blue Buoy for three reasons:
I chose them because my kids loved it there.
I chose them because the instructors are so good that even former Olympians take their own children there for lessons.
I chose them because they keep the pool heated to 92 degrees. No more ice cold swimming lessons for me!
My first lesson was a chlorinated trip back in time. Even though I had been away for fifteen years, everything was exactly the same as when I brought my babies there.
In those days, swimming lessons meant a few minutes of break time when I could casually sip coffee and watch my kids happily splashing in the pool.
So as I arrived for my lesson, I noticed a few sets of moms and dads on the pool deck and secretly envied them. No rest for me today. It was my turn in the water.
I jumped in the warm, bathtub water and instantly appreciated my decision. My instructor was Johnny Johnson, co-owner and veteran instructor. He's been teaching for over forty years; he taught Olympian Jason Lezak to swim as well as Chad Hundeby, the Irvine man who set the world's record for crossing the English Channel. Today, Gold Medal swimmer Janet Evans trusts Johnny to teach her own two kids.
But can he teach me?
"It's all about getting used to a new environment, learning to trust yourself in the water," he said. "Little kids learn to swim because they love just being in the water. They haven't learned to fear it yet."
I knew what he was talking about. It's not that I was afraid of swimming, but I definitely wasn't comfortable. I didn't trust myself to keep my face in the water, I lifted my head to breathe, and I tired quickly after gulping in what felt like half of the pool.
But Johnny didn't give up on me. He explained that I should use my arms like skates, gliding through the water in a graceful movement. He showed me how to cup my hands to "catch" the water and pull myself forward. He also said that it was OK to float once in awhile.
The next few weeks were pretty much the same: Tuesday night lessons with Johnny, and then afternoon practice sessions at the neighborhood pool in Irvine. Everything was going "swimmingly" except for one problem.
I wasn't getting much better.
Oh sure, I had gotten my feet wet, but I was still an ocean away from my goal.
Then I went to the World's Largest Swimming Lesson on June 14th, an international event to promote water safety and instruction. Over 100 kids, parents and grandparents jumped in Blue Buoy's pool along with swimming schools around the world. Together, they helped to set a world's record for the most people taking a simultaneous swim lesson. Johnny used a microphone to lead the lesson and Janet Evans shared encouragement.
"No one is ever pool safe," she said. "Not even me. We all have to be careful whenever we're around water."
After seeing so many little ones enjoying the pool, it reminded me that, above all, this is supposed to be fun.
Maybe I was tring too hard. Maybe I needed to take Johnny's advice and learn to love just being in the water.
I headed back to my neighborhood pool to give it a try. There I found an older lady, gliding slowly through the water.
Back and forth, in no particular hurry, she moved as if swimming was her second nature, as if she trusted the water. She swam without stopping and I marvelled at how she never seemed to get tired.
When she finally stopped, I asked her how she was able to be so comfortable in the water.
"I just breathe," she said simply. "You just have to relax and let yourself breathe."
Looking at the master-planned suburban sprawl of today's Irvine, it is hard to believe that the city was once dominated by agriculture. Back around World War I, Irvine was brimming with lima beans and nearly 60,000 acres of bean bushes carpeted the landscape. These days, glimpses of agriculture can be found at small strawberry fields scattered around the city and Tanaka Farms, a 30-acre farm that offers year-round fun for visiting families, keeps the agricultural spirit alive in Orange County.
The Tanakas are no strangers to agriculture. The family has been farming in the US since great-grandfather Teru immigrated from Hiroshima-ken, Japan 100 years ago. After decades of farming on the Southern border of the city, development in the late nineties led the family to move their farm to its current location, a quiet valley near Strawberry Farms golf course. The farm is 100% organic and offers the community a wonderful Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, but the seasonal farm tours are what have made Tanaka Farms a household name in Orange County.
Thanks to Irvine's mild climate, there is always something growing and plenty of outdoor fun to experience at Tanaka Farms. During the spring (mid-March to the end of June), Tanaka's famous strawberry tours take place. Visitors hop on board a tractor pulled wagon for a guided tour of the farm, learning about the varied seasonal produce grown on the farm and sampling a few tasty items along the way. Then they hop off the tractor and get to pick their own strawberries straight from the patch. Each visitor gets to fill up a one pound basket with strawberries and encouraged to stuff as many strawberries in their mouth as they can while they pick. You haven't had a successful day at the patch until you have sweet strawberry juice dripping down to your elbows!
During the summer months (July to August), watermelons are the stars of the show. Visitors are once again given a tractor tour of the farm as well as a chance to sample Farmer Tanaka's famous "candy" sweet yellow melons before selecting their very own watermelon to take home. Saturday Harvest Tours are also popular during this time of the year and give guests the opportunity to take a walking tour of the farm, collecting their own veggies along the way to take home.
During the fall (late September through October), Tanaka Farms becomes a pumpkin patch. Farm tours, a petting zoo, and a corn maze, are just some of the fun experiences encountered. Weekends include games, crafts, and more. The true highlight of an autumn visit is picking out your perfect pumpkin from the patch. If you are spending the holidays in Irvine, stop by Tanaka Farms and pick out a fresh Christmas tree from their varied selection of trees.
Finally, if you are planning a picnic or looking for some fresh, local, and organic produce, the Tanaka Farms produce stand is the place to shop. In addition to a wide variety of fruit and veggies, the stand also sells fresh baked breads, homemade tortilla chips and salsa, and all sorts of snack mixes. My son is especially fond of the lemon bread and you can't ever go wrong with the vine-ripened seasonal fruit.